On evil eye and envy

(Background: A few days earlier, in a community I joined I have come to a realisation that someone was unhappy about what I wrote, citing that we need to write more about “slices of life” like “coming home from work and watching YouTube”. I would normally let it go, but the fact that she made this comment following my post on grief and missing my father (she wrote something along the lines of “all of us who lead boring lives – nobody died, no first world problems” and calls for “more boring posts”) hurts deeply. Instead of confronting her, I think a lot about how people who you have never talked to, or works you have never tried to understand, have made you uncomfortable at one point at a time. We all had those moments — I am pretty sure I have done all of these too. This is when I was reminded of the concept of evil eye.)

My first encounter with the concept of the evil eye was during an outing with a Turkish friend back in London. We were having lunch at a Turkish restaurant somewhere near to the university where I saw a number of blue beads being hung around the place. As a stickler for symbolism, I knew they had to represent something, of which I asked my friend. He replied, “They are called nazar boncuğu. Work as charms against evil eye. You know, the things people are mad at you for being or having something better than them. In this restaurant, they might work to dispel people’s envy at him for having a successful restaurant.” In this sense, evil eye is a look casted to cause other people harm.

The origin of the word is Arabic, means ‘to look, to look at’ (Er M., 2005:13; Hançerlioğlu, 1984). The term ‘nazar’ is used by means of ‘eye touch’ to be cause damage to human, livestock or object (Er M., 2005:13; Pakalın, 1972; Marcais 1960, 784-6). In ancient Turkish dictionary ‘Divânu Lügati’t- Türk’, Kaşgarlı Mahmud defines evil eye as a fatal power that comes into being from bad effects and to ward it off “egit” — a kind of medicine, used for protection from evil eye.

On why nazar boncuğu is blue (and some other charms in the other cultures are of other colours):

In Mohamedan countries blue is considered the most potent colour of protection, probably because in the same lands, among dark-eyed people, the blue eye is a suspect eye and therefore blue would attract the evil glance to itself, rather than to the person or object which is thus adorned, horses and camels in Morocco and Algiers with great blue buttons on their harnesses. The same colour is used in countries like Greece and Armenia where the has been contacts with the Turks. Elsewhere in Europe, the favourite protective colour is red. In Italy sometimes a religious medal is attached with red ribbons. In Greece, a mother who just gave birth will tie a red ribbon around her arm. In Ireland, a thread is woven into a horse’s tail. Red is also sometimes combined with other charms.

There’s a part in the book The Haunting of Tram Car 015 which I just finished (awesome book — please get it! ) where a group of women defeated an evil spirit using hamsa — a variation of evil eye charm in Middle Eastern and North African regions:

But the woman stood her ground, holding up an object fastened to a necklace. It was a hamsa, Hamed recognised in surprise — a blue painted amulet shaped like the open palm of the right hand with an eye in the centre. An old symbol, it was still popular in the countryside as a protective against evil. The woman was wielding it now like a weapon and calling out surahs at the top of her lungs.

From out of the crowd, another woman appeared — this one in colourful Nubian prints. She held up an open palm, where a hamsa had been inscribed in henna, and added her own unwavering voice. Hamed watched in astonishment as more women ran forward, joining in chanting at the spiriti and making warding gestures with their hands.

As a Malaysian Muslim, this concept of evil eye and envy is not alien at all to us. We might not have a definite item (like Turkish’s blue nazar boncugu) to act as an evil eye repeller against envies and bad vibes people throw at us, but we do have a similar concept : tangkal. Growing up, they can be anything: they can be pendants, or some items wrapped in cloth etc. Before being handed to people who request them, tangkal would be read with certain Quranic verses by bomohs (Malaysian witch doctors) to ward off evil. Unlike nazar boncuğu, tangkal does not only help to ward off evil, but they can also do something else according to the requests, which includes sending the evil towards someone or something by itself! What a shudder to think about what people would go to the length of harming you, sometimes due to reasons you could not even comprehend.

There is a general belief that certain people has eyes that could injure or cause harm and evil eye is brought about by staring at the victim. For example, in Poland, people get uneasy when anyone, especially one with piercing eyes, looks too long at a baby so the parent would say “Na psa uroki” which means, “May the evil fall on the dog.” Italians believed people who are still recovering from illness should just stay at home, otherwise the stares from others outside might cause them to fall ill again. This also got me thinking about how evil eye travels in the digital world – through Medium posts, Whatsapp messages, tweets, Facebook comments — to inflict injury to the envied, sometimes anonymously. The effect could be psychological as what I have experienced — I saw the hurtful comment, and I couldnt’t stop thinking about it, but the poster could not care less. But to some extend, the effects could be much worse: we could think about the cases of cyberbullying, doxxing, and harassments — which could spill towards the physical life.

Also, something interesting to conclude this — sometimes the envied act more beneficially towards the community in order to appease those who envy them, because as humans people do not like to cause negative feelings in others, and sometimes can be distressed by their own outperformance:

While studying Polynesian fishers, Firth (1939) noticed something odd. When one fisher caught fish and others did not, he would give away all of his catch. If he did not, the others would talk negatively about him back in the village. This sharing behavior was called te pi o te kaimeo, the blocking of envy.

Outperforming others leads to mixed feelings. A high achiever can feel happy, because doing better than others increases one’s social standing (Festinger, 1954; Smith, 2000). However, one’s own rise in standing also leads to a lower relative standing for others, which elicits negative affect in them (Tesser, 1988). People do not like to cause negative feelings in others and therefore can be distressed by their own outperformance. One specific emotion that arises when a person is outperformed is envy. Envy “occurs when a person lacks another’s superior quality, achievement, or possession and either desires it or wishes that the other lacked it” (Parrott & Smith, 1993, p. 906). Envy is a frustrating experience that may lead to strong dislike (Schaubroeck & Lam, 2004) and even vicious behaviour, such as a willingness to destroy the envied person’s money (Zizzo & Oswald, 2001). Hence, there is good reason to feel distress when outperforming others and expecting them to become envious.

Because envy is a common emotion (Smith & Kim, 2007), it seems plausible that humans have developed a mechanism that protects against these destructive effects.

It is frustrating to limit your own growth just because there are a number of people who are unhappy of what we have achieved, so an advice I need to heed myself — well, fuck it.

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